Art by StarTwo
Portugal is a land of many traditions and among them, there’s one in particular that has been officially recognized as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO this month of December 2019! It is none other than the Caretos from Podence, in Trás-os-Montes e Alto-Douro, Portugal. A millenarian tradition celebrated in Winter, but festivities are more intense on Shrove Tuesday and its previous day.
There are several speculations about its origin and it’s believed to have Celtic roots, from a pre-Roman period. Probably related to the existence of the Gallaeci and Bracari in Galicia and North of Portugal.
A rather interesting theory also speaks of the connection to the Roman Saturnalia, the agricultural god Saturn and Lupercalia festivities, in honour of Pan, god of shepherds and flocks. And when you think of satyrs and their chase on the nymphs… Well, let’s keep going.
The Caretos are creatures that blur the lines stipulated by religion and profanity, born yearly when groups of men and boys dress in colourful red, green and yellow fringe wool quilts, wearing brass, leather or wooden masks and cowbells in their belts. They appear from several points of the village to chase and clonk the cowbells on their “victims”, as they rhythmically shake their waists to make as much noise as possible, while shouting loudly in a similar way to foxes, jumping high with the help of their staffs.
They specially enjoy chasing the people that try to run away and not to mention the visits to any smoke-house that they – with consent – will stealthily “relieve” of some enchidos (some are a type of gamy meat sausages, other a type of black pudding sausage, also chourizo, etc… All so delicious and tasty!) much to the annoyance of whoever spent their time making them… The men that are not in costume that year will be carried on their devilish shoulders and lead to their wineries in order to quench the thirst of the Caretos.
Their main goal is to chase after single girls where the unfortunate ones to be caught get rattled by the Caretos, as they energetically make the cowbells sound loud and vigorously against and around the unfortunate soul. No big harm comes to them except maybe promise themselves to run faster next year…
In Portuguese we say that the Caretos have the Devil in them, “Têm o Diabo no corpo” (literally means that the Devil is inside their body) and in a way it speaks the truth as the once calm and even introverted people seem to transform in the anonymity of the Careto impersonation once they put on the outfit.
We feel that it’s relevant that we share the link to a mini documentary you can watch for free about the Caretos: The Skin of the Devil by Zé Maria Mendonça e Moura and with music and SFX by Tiago A. Calvário & Carlos Geraldes.
Nowadays the Caretos are quite tame in comparison to the stories told by previous generations, where the rattling was harsher, the girls would gather and taunt the men, believing to be safe by the windows, but the Caretos were resourceful in their determination.
One would wonder if the outfit really gave the men supernatural powers from the heights they would jump from and land safely without a scratch, or the capacity to jump into high balconies, getting in through windows in order to get inside the houses that tried to stop them – in vain.
Today boys can get close to girls without the struggle or stigma from closed, overly religious and puritan communities of older times, so maybe the superpowers are kept on the side, just in case.
The Caretos used to be impersonated only by men and boys and it almost ceased to exist in the 70s with the war and immigration – which meant that less and less men came back to the village to keep these festivities alive – so now girls also join in.
All in all, even if the tradition has been shifting and adapting to current times, it has been proven that one thing remains: the passing of the outfit through fathers and sons – and now daughters as well – and the immigrated families that make sure they come back in time to don the outfits or just to celebrate it up to the burning of the Shrovetide. Allowing everyone to let go of their ailments and watch them fly away, carried by the ashes of the big Careto doll as it burns.
All promising to come back next year and do it all again.
We’re going through Storm Elsa, so we double the wishes to everyone:
★stay safe and stay inspired!★